Part Two: It Doesn’t Have to be Like This — Practical Ways to Fix our Elections

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

A line drawing of a hand putting a ballot into a ballot box with other ballots shown inside.
Image courtesy svgsilh.com

You can’t blame people for being cynical about the value of their vote. In a world where big donors appear to be making the big decisions, districts are gerrymandered into foregone conclusions, the average congressperson represents 747,000 constituents, and nobody knows which special interests are paying the bills, it’s reasonable to ask if we’re even really living in a democracy, anymore.

Wikipedia’s list of forms of government suggests some terms that might be more accurate. It might be correct to call the US a netocracy, a portmanteau of internet and aristocracy describing a new aristocracy of the digitally connected. You could also reasonably argue for the term cyberdeutocracy, a system of government “where information elites engage in the destruction and/or transformation of existing meanings, symbols, values, and ideas; the generation of new meanings, symbols, values, and ideas; and the introduction of these transformed and new meanings, symbols, values, and ideas into the public consciousness to shape society’s perception of political reality.”

Tellingly, one of the definers of the term netocracy also defines an associated underclass:

A rounded stick figure of the kind used in road and restroom signs is shown pushing a shopping cart full of boxes.  Bard describes the consumatariate's choices as more about shopping than elections.
Is this all we are? Image via Pixabay.com PaliGraficas

Alexander Bard describes a new underclass called the consumtariat, a portmanteau of consumer and proletariat, whose main activity is consumption, regulated from above. It is kept occupied with private problems, its desires provoked with the use of adverts and its active participation is limited to things like product choice, product customization, engaging with interactive products and life-style choice.

Wikipedia

The time-tested term plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) might also be accurate.

However you define it, government in the US feels less and less like something by, for, and of the people.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

That is really what the First Strategy — Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation — outlined in the report is about. The report makes it very clear that there are steps we can take to wrest control of our government away from the elite and into the hands of the people.

Some of the recommendations call for change at a national level, where good ideas currently go to die. A constitutional amendment to separate corporate rights from individual rights (1.5), an expansion of the House of Representatives (1.1), repealing a 1967 law that mandates single member districts (1.3), and changing Supreme Court Justice terms from life to 18 years (1.8) are all ideas that aren’t going to get traction until we change who we are sending to Washington.

An image of the US Capitol Building.
Where good ideas go to die. Image courtesy By Architect of the Capitol – aoc.gov, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7531712.

But the recommendation to introduce ranked-choice voting in local, state, and federal elections (1.2) is something that can happen at a grassroots level. So are the adoption of independent citizen-redistricting commissions (1.4); strong state-level campaign finance disclosure laws (1.6); and passing clean election laws, again at the state level, implementing systems such as donation matching and democracy vouchers, to amplify the impact of small donors (1.7).

Americans broadly agree on more than one might expect. From policies like universal background checks, ending cash bail, and legal status for dreamers to principles like lower drug costs, funding for child care, and action on climate change. So how is it that none of it ever gets done? All of the above measures that can be done at the state and local levels would begin to address the problem.

Most elections in the US, from dogcatcher to the president, are organized in a winner-take-all format. That means that if there is a three-way race, and two of the candidates get roughly 30% of the vote each, the win goes to the third candidate who got around 40% of the vote even though 60% of the voters don’t actually like that candidate.

In a real-world example, only 5.5% of eligible voters actually voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. He was close to getting half the primary votes, but not quite there, which means that more than half of Republican primary voters voted against him.

Map of the US showing the vote distribution in the 2016 Republican primary election.  The map shows that Mr Trump garnered the majority of votes in about half of the states that he won, while in the other half he won without a majority.
U.S. States by Vote Distribution, 2016 (Republican Party). You can see that while President Trump had a clear majority in some states, in many others he did not. This isn’t a party thing — there are plenty of Democratic examples out there, I just don’t have a handy chart for them. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Ali Zifan / CC BY-SA

Winner-take-all or first-past-the-post elections push candidates toward extreme positions because they are won not by the candidate with the majority of votes, but by the candidate who has the most votes, a plurality. To win a majority, a candidate needs to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate and build a large coalition. To win a plurality, a candidate can instead provide red meat for extremists, especially in primaries (since typically only passionate, committed voters, often citizens of the ideological extremes, turn out for them). Once the nomination is secured, the party’s moderates will feel that they have no choice but to vote for a candidate they don’t like, but see as the lesser of two evils.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more of us were casting ballots for a candidate we actually believed in?

There is nothing in the constitution that says states, counties, and cities have to use a winner-take-all system. We’re only doing it this way because we’ve done it this way for a long time, and because we see other states and locations doing it this way. That’s not a very good reason to keep using a system that is giving us increasingly terrible results.

In 2016, after a grassroots campaign, Maine passed a ‘question’ on whether or not to switch to ranked-choice voting. After a bit of a legal saga, and several additional votes, that state will be the first to hold a presidential election by this method in November. There are grassroots campaigns underway to implement similar systems in Alaska, Massachusets, and North Dakota. Several cities, including New York, use the system or will be voting on it soon.

It’s a whole thing, and it works. In terms of how it works, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. If you have five candidates in a particular race, instead of casting a vote for one of them, you rank them in your order of preference. If nobody gets a 50%+1 majority, the candidates below a certain threshold are eliminated, and their votes go to whoever was that voter’s second choice. It’s basically a run-off system, without the time and expense of actually holding run-offs. Australia has been using it for federal lower house elections since 1918. Ireland has been using it for presidential elections since 1937. Fiji and Papua New Guinea seem to get along fine with it.

An example of a ranked-choice voting ballot, using an imaginary mayoral election among John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and a write in.  A drawing of a hand is shown filling out the ballot.
It’s a pretty simple system. Image courtesy: Peter J. Yost / CC0 , Wikimedia Commons.

The system also encourages third party candidates and their voters, because they won’t split the vote and cause the major party candidate most ideologically similar to them to lose. And just think how nice it would be to rank your choices instead of trying to strategize about which candidate has a better chance in the general.

Instead of candidates going to the extremest extremes to differentiate themselves, ranked-choice voting leads to this sort of thing:

Just think! With a grassroots effort, your slate of 2024 campaign ads could look like that.

The measure that citizens are trying to get on the ballot in North Dakota would implement ranked-choice voting and a citizen-redistricting commission to draw up the districts after the 2020 census. Again, there is nothing in the national constitution that says the dominant party in the state legislature should get to draw the districts.

We all know that gerrymandering is a problem. Somehow it doesn’t feel like what the framers intended. And when you consider the technological innovations of the last 40-odd years, the partisan advantages gained by ever more sophisticated gerrymandering look less and less like something a reasonable sort of enlightenment thinker would endorse.

The original 1812 political cartoon depicting a state senate election district in Massachusetts as a sort of dragon/salamander hybrid.  The term gerrymander was coined based on the shape of this district and the last name of then Governor Elbridge Gerry.  Image reflects the problem of gerrymandering in our elections.
Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like “monster”. Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a portmanteau of that word and Governor Gerry’s last name. Image and caption courtesy Wikipedia, By Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835) (often falsely attributed to Gilbert Stuart)[1] – Originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812., Public Domain, Link

It is also definitely not something any of our representatives, federal, state, or local, are going to fix for us. If we the people want fair districts, we the people are going to have to start collecting signatures for more ballot initiatives.

The last two of the currently feasible recommendations listed under the strategy of achieving equality of voice and representation are all about campaign financing. Our elected officials know how they got where they are, and it wasn’t by not accepting money or advocating strategies that would level the playing field for less well-funded opponents. We can, and should, expect them to do the right thing. But we clearly can’t count on it.

We’ve been counting on it, and just look how far we’ve gotten. The 2016 elections for national offices cost around about 6.4 billion dollars. Think about all the other things we, as a nation, could have done with an extra 6.4 billion dollars! And those donations are influencing policies. How could they not be?

Washington isn’t going to change this. The framers never imagined it, and so didn’t provide for it. They didn’t write the constitution to limit campaign donations to actual human people, and the Supreme Court didn’t interpret it thus.

An outline of the Unites States filled in with images of one dollar bills, reflecting the predominance of money in our elections.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Of all the recommendations put forward by the commission, a constitutional amendment reigning in corporate donations seems the most far-fetched, given our current situation.

But if we want to seriously start calling ourselves a democracy again, we’ve got to do something. One of the commission’s recommendations is to empower small donors by matching or multiplying their donations, or giving everyone vouchers to give to their favorite candidate. I’m a little cynical about this one. The question that occurs to me is what are we giving up in order to fund it? Is the campaign donation budget going to come partially from my niece’s middle and high-school education budget? Are we going to take it from the libraries, our crumbling infrastructure, or (lord help us all in the time of COVID) from our public health system?

It’s a good idea, but nobody is going to tax themselves for it.

The other recommendation is much simpler. It’s just transparency. Our elected representatives are going to be selling out to big donors for the foreseeable future. It would be better for democracy if we at least got to know who they were selling out to.

There isn’t much we can do at the federal level. We’re stuck with the campaign finance laws we have until we elect different representatives who might be willing to make different laws. However, our state legislatures often act as a sort of bush league for national office. And we can (some states already have) pass laws so that we can know who is donating what to our state representatives.

If the speaker of a state legislature is elected with massive support from a particular corporate interest, it is reasonable to surmise that her donor portfolio may be similar when she runs for national office six years later, unless her positions have changed substantially.

And, of course, many, if not most, of the decisions that impact our daily lives are made at the state and local level, anyway. Passing laws to take the dark money (particularly from 501(c)3 and 4 tax exempt entities) out of our state and local politics would be a huge win for citizens. And it can be done with ballot measures and via local politics, which are typically more responsive than your average congressperson with their 747,000 constituents.

An 1865 petition for woman suffrage signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  A big fix for our elections, done in part by ballot initiative.
It took 50 more years for women to get suffrage after this 1865 petition. They were signing petitions for change before they were even voters. Part of the fight for women suffrage was done via ballot initative in various states. National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

Overall, even though half the recommendations listed under this strategy in the report are pretty pie-in-the-sky for the time being, I found a lot of reasons to have hope here. I’m especially optimistic about the national groundswell of support around the idea of ranked-choice voting.

It feel so powerless to be a citizen, these days. In this country we talk a great talk about the difference one person can make, and how wonderful it is that we vote. But when it comes to actually changing our increasingly toxic political landscape, most of us have given up. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a report with four down-to-earth, practical, attainable changes that can be made, or at least go up for a vote, if we can just find a few committed citizens to head things up.

Any volunteers?

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